Saturday, March 15, 2008

what is missions?

This can be a challenging question to answer - what is missions?

There are just so many different perceptions and ideas of what exactly entails Christian missions that few can come to a unified agreement as to how to define it. In fact, there is little to no real sense of clarity as to what is meant by missions and its practice cross-culturally. My friend Alan Johnson, a long time missionary to Southeast Asia, believes this lack of clarity is due to a variety of factors. One of the problems is that we have allowed the idea of missions to mean just about anything such that every person becomes a missionary (to their work, neighborhood, school, local club, stores, etc) - just about anywhere is now a "mission field" and any believer is a "missionary." What happens then is that, to quote Stephen Neill, "when everything is mission, nothing is mission." This then, had lead to general confusion at the local level as to what missions is and what it entails. I think this leads too, to general lack of financial support for cross-cultural missions work because many may not see the point.

My friend Alan Johnson says what has happened then is a "conflating of ideas regarding evangelistic outreach in a local church or movement context within its own sociocultural setting with missions. Thus, any kind of outreach at all becomes missions, with the deadening [or flattening] effect of equalizing all types of evangelism." Many folks think cross-cultural missions and local church or personal evangelism are the same thing, when they are not.

In and unpublished paper given at AGTS in 2006, Alan talked about this idea being "accompanied by concepts such as missions relating to the crossing of geographic borders, working with our own people in locations outside of our geopolitical borders, and where the term “missionary” is used, with the ubiquitous aphorism, 'everyone is a missionary.'"

He goes on to say "This results in people being sent outside of their country to preach the Gospel to their own people who are living abroad, while ignoring within their own borders those groups of different religious, social, and linguistic background who do not have church movements at all. It also devalues the cross-cultural worker because since we are all missionaries our field is wherever we live, thus giving all places equal priority no matter what the strength of the church is within that sociocultural setting. [brackets or italics mine]

It needs to be highlighted that there is a difference between geographical and socio-cultural borders. One is in regards to location. The other is in regards to cultural differences. These are vastly different. The question he is putting forth is doing "missions" work in a separate geographical location but among existing church structures and "missions" work among a completely different socio-cultural setting/location the same? He says no, they are not the same.

So back to the question, what is mission? Christian missions is that effort to proclaim the Christian gospel to people in those socio-cultural settings where the gospel has not only not been heard but where there is no means to hear the gospel message because no near Christian neighbor, with whom the non-christian person can hear and come to knowledge of Christ, exists.

So, is our workplace a mission field? No. Is our neighborhood a mission field? No. Unless our workplace or neighborhood is among non-Christians in a socio-cultural setting completely separate from our own, such as among Muslims in Dearborn or Khartoum, or Buddhists in Denver or Mongolia.

The emphasis here is on socio-cultural settings over geographical locations. There may be "missionaries" in Central America, Eastern Europe, or even South Asia but if they are teaching at a Bible school and/or working with existing church leaders then they may not really be missionaries but rather just Christian workers providing support in overseas contexts. True apostolic missions doesn't work among existing church structures but instead goes to settings where the church does not exist or is a very tiny minority.

This is still in progress for me so if you want to talk with me about it, please do.



At 5:55 PM, Blogger Peter Kirk said...

Brian, I am puzzled by your apparent implication that the only true missionaries are those doing direct evangelism among target people groups, and not those who are equipping believers among those groups, i.e. "teaching at a Bible school and/or working with existing church leaders". Bear in mind that evangelism is generally much more effective within a people group than cross-culturally, and you will realise that, with a people group in which there are already at least "a very tiny minority" of Christians, it is a much better medium to long term strategy to equip those Christians to do the evangelism rather than send westerners, at great expense, to do it themselves. That "very tiny minority", properly equipped, can grow exponentially, whereas direct evangelism by expats produces only linear church growth. This is quite apart from the important issues of ownership of the mission and long term sustainability when the expats have to leave.

At 4:47 PM, Blogger Brian said...

Thanks Peter for your response. In regard to he difference between Christian workers and "missionaries" I think it depends on the context - certainly if one is teaching in a Bible School and or working with existing church leaders in a way that partners with them in reaching the unreached (ie: church planting), then absolutely they are missionaries.

If however, a Christian worker is teaching in a Bible School in an area where there is sufficient means of the national church to reach its own people for Christ, then I would say they are Christian workers and not missionaries per se. Missionaries actively seek to engage the lost and reach them for Christ.

For example, the Philippines doesn't really need more missionaries - but the can certainly use plenty of help and support from fellow Christian workers. Why? Because thousands of churches have been planted there and a there is an established national church leadership (among various denominations). Now they need partnership efforts to continue the work.

However, if we take Thailand for example, the Christian population there is roughly less than 1%, with 95% being Buddhist and the remaining % either Muslim or "other." While there is somewhat of an established church leadership (mainly in and around Bangkok and Chang Mai) there are still large portions of the country where there are no churches and no christian witness - Thailand still needs missionaries to go and plant churches among the various unreached people groups there.

As to western verses national missionaries and who is more effective - I think it depends. There are situations where either westerners or non-national missionaries have been more effective in establishing contact with an unreached people group than a national can. Why? Much of it depends in the socio-cultural barriers. If we take India for example, with the caste system some cannot even hardly communicate with others, yet often a non-native can break through those barriers. In some cases some nationals will not reach out to others within their own borders. If we go back to Thailand, a missionary friend of my there is pulling his hair out trying to get the Thai Christians (buddhist background) to consider reaching out to the Thai Muslims in the south - they won't do it - or they are not yet at a place in their relationship with God that they are willing to cross that barrier for the sake of the gospel.

Does this make sense? Thanks again for the note.

At 7:28 PM, Blogger Peter Kirk said...

Thanks, Brian. Yes, what you are saying makes sense. And I accept that there are cases, like the ones you mention, where cross-cultural international evangelism and church planting may be necessary because evangelism across barriers within the country is not working as it should. Indeed I myself worked in such a situation for several years, not myself as a church planter but as a close friend of several who are.

The problem really is that you are working on a quite different definition of "missions" and "missionary" from mine. I understand a missionary as someone who crosses cultural boundaries (although not necessarily national ones) for the sake of Christian work. So that would include Bible school teachers even where the church is well established, and all those support workers needed in the Philippines. But I would exclude those evangelising and planting churches within their own people group and locality.

The problem with your definition is that it encourages churches in western countries to focus their resources on church planters etc and not support those who are doing vital jobs for God's Kingdom in support and Bible teaching roles. That imbalance is not helpful especially when it leads into a reluctance to hand work over to nationals, with international support, even when that is what is most appropriate on the ground.

At 9:08 PM, Blogger Brian said...

Well, Peter, I think we are in agreement for the most part. I think I am trying to narrow the scope a bit what missions is and isn't.

I think there has been neglect for the cross-cultural missionary as 95% of printed literature and or needed Christian resources are for the already "reached" Christian world. More effort needs to be directed to reaching the lost and unreached.

I agree the bible teaching/ministry equipping roles are vital - they are very important but is it missions?

I suppose I think the heart of missions needs to focus on church planting, establishing churches where their are none, and staying in one place long enough to reach a group of people. Few want to dedicate their lives to a people group but tons want to be world traveling bible teachers and crusaders.

If you want here is a link to listen to a lecture by Alan Johnson on these issues in missions:

It is at the AGTS website but you can download the lecture and let me know what you think.

At 8:45 AM, Blogger Peter Kirk said...

Brian, I fully agree that the need is for missionaries who stay in one place for a long time, not globe-trotters. But I think that in many circumstances their role in church planting should be (and in many countries has to be) equipping and encouraging local believers rather than concentrating on direct work with unbelievers. This also ensures that the work is not entirely dependent on the expats, which on my understanding is vital for the long term health of the church.

At 9:33 AM, Blogger Brian said...

I agree Peter - missionaries do need to build up the national leadership and equip them. I think a both/and would be good - equipping and reaching the lost.


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